A Five-Act Paradigm, or,
What Syd Field Didn't Tell You
As a non-Hollywood writer and director, I ask screenwriters around the world to join me and look at the original three-act paradigm put forward by Syd Field in his book Screenplay:
This paradigm received a lot of praise and became a de facto standard in Hollywood. But it has also faced harsh criticism for its oversimplicity and failure to accommodate the sophisticated demands of modern filmmaking. Indeed, looking at this paradigm as a sort of "painting hanging on the wall" one may ask some tough questions:
We're already thirty minutes into the film—is it still the beginning, as it was thirty, and twenty-five, and twenty minutes ago?
The first plot point happens on page 25—how can it be that we have had no action points until now?
Act 2 constitutes 60 pages of confrontation—one obstacle after the other for one hour! Isn't it boring?
The resolution—is it just an "end" lasting thirty minutes?
And so on...
As if responding to such critiques, Syd Field later offered a more detailed structure in the boundaries of the same paradigm (The Screenwriter's Problem Solver):
Now in this version act 2 is more structured and consists of two parts divided by a midpoint. Although considerably more helpful, this structure still fails to answer many questions.
Although the first plot point now may happen earlier (as early as page 20), making the setup more dynamic, we are still not satisfied with the absence of a start point, and we have an overlong beginning. What's the solution? The paradigm gives no answer.
Although act 2 now has two parts, a plot point happens only in its second half. What about the first half?
Does the midpoint belong to the first half of act 2 or to the second half? Or does it belong to the entire story, cutting it in two?
Resolution—does it happen at the very end of the line, after which the story immediately drops, followed by the final credits? Or is it a thirty-minute gradual process of resolving the story bit by bit?
These and other questions cannot keep one entirely happy with the paradigm, which otherwise offers a clear, balanced view of the screenplay. It is like looking at the story from a distance, missing some crucial, vitally important points. You can feel a strong desire to step up and take a closer look at "the painting."
So let's take this step and look closer at the painting.
THE SETUP: TEN PAGES OR THIRTY?
As we scrutinize act 1, we can immediately distinguish "the most important part of the screenplay"—its first ten pages. It is within the first ten pages of the screenplay (or first ten minutes of the movie) that you can usually determine whether you like it or not. Let's put it on the painting:
Syd Field points out that within the first ten-page unit of dramatic action you have to show the reader who your main character is, what the dramatic premise of the story (what it's about) is, and what the dramatic situation (the circumstances surrounding the action) is. Character, premise, situation (we can add "genre" to the list)—to put it all in one word, this is the "setup."
Every plot point is a function of the main character. The start point is no exception—it is an initial event that sets our hero in motion. In the screenplay of Chinatown this moment happens on page 7, when Gittes (Jack Nicholson) accepts the proposal of the phony Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to investigate the case: "Very well. We'll see what we can do."
Most Hollywood movies have their start points within the first ten minutes:
Doesn't it look suspiciously familiar? Yes, it does. It looks exactly like an act in Syd Field's paradigm. And in fact it is. As important as it is, you have to consider this unit of dramatic action as a separate act. You have to set up the character, the premise, the situation, and the genre all within this act. You have to set up the entire story in this act, or else the reader will dump your screenplay, and the moviegoer will hate your movie.
Write it down and remember: my ten-page setup is act 1.
The all-importance of the setup for the entire screenplay deserves a few more words.
As a separate act the setup has three distinct parts: opening scene, story-launching scene, and plot-question scene.
In Chinatown the opening scene is a four-page dialogue between Gittes and Curly in Gittes's office. The story-launching scene takes place in Duffy/Walsh's office, and it goes from page 5 to the start point on page 7. That leaves the plot-question scene, which is set at the public hearings in the city hall, with the plot question coming from a farmer: "Who's paying you to do that, Mr. Mulwray? That's what I want to know."
Note that the opening scene does not necessarily introduce the main character. Its primary goal is to set up the world we are thrown into and establish the genre of the movie we're watching. In other words, it lays the foundation for the story-launching scene. The latter, in its turn, always deals with the main character (even if your main character is not a human but a subject, such as Woodstock or the Vietnam War). The start point, found in that scene, is the protagonist's initial action, immediately followed by the plot-question scene.
The plot question itself is not always formulated by the protagonist. It may come from a supporting character and sometimes (as in the case of Chinatown) even from an insignificant, seemingly episodic part. Once posed, it closes your setup, and you are ready to plunge into —
ACT 2: INTRIGUE
Before proceeding to this exciting piece of screenwriting, you may ask yourself, Can the next twenty pages of my screenplay—which is now act 2—still be called "setup"?
I guess you already know the answer: No.
In contemporary filmmaking you can't keep your moviegoers satisfied if you keep setting up the story for thirty minutes. You have to do it in ten minutes. So what do we call the next twenty minutes of dramatic action, ending with the famous plot point 1 ?
Simple. We call it: Intrigue.
Driven by what will eventually prove to be the central question in the entire story's plot, we follow our hero into her or his quest. While the plot question is never resolved in this act, a chain of unexpected revelations occurs along the way, leading to plot point 1. The main character suddenly finds herself in the middle of the intrigue. She is part of it!
Plot point 1 is a direct result of the start point. Your protagonist is set in motion without really knowing where she/he is going. As a result, she/he becomes involved in some scheme and now faces the point after which there is clearly no return. Plot point 1 is nothing else but your protagonist's decision to go beyond this point.
In Chinatown Gittes discovers that as a result of his initial investigation he has become an actor in someone else's play, the biggest revelation being the appearance of the real Mrs. Mulwray in his office. Some mistake this event for plot point 1. Remember: plot is a function of the main character. However striking this revelation appears to be, it is not a twist yet. Gittes is not yet moving in any new direction; his decision is simply not there yet. In fact, it is a test. It is Gittes's commitment to the truth that is being tested. The real twist, the real plot point 1 in Chinatown, happens on page 27, during their second meeting, when Mrs. Mulwray offers to drop the lawsuit. Now there is an alternative. To keep the protagonist proactive, there always must be an alternative at any turning point: go back to normal life or step into the new territory, unknown land. Gittes makes his choice: "I don't want to drop it."
And again, plot point 1 does not lead directly to the next act. Act 2 has yet to be closed, and more often than not it will close with a bang. This bang usually comes as a final revelation of the Intrigue, its strongest one. Burn the bridge before your hero's eyes. Let us feel that his or her life will never be the same.
Kill Mr. Mulwray.
Now that the decision has been made, the point of no return crossed and bridges burned, the protagonist has no other choice but to proceed to—
ACT 3: TERRA INCOGNITA, OR LEARNING EXPERIENCE
This unknown land in the middle of the screenplay might be no less strange to the writer than to the protagonist! Every now and then you can hear from aspiring writers and mature professionals alike that they have great openings and exciting resolutions but are completely lost in this over-long, monstrous sixty-page middle act, where screenplay gurus advise you to simply throw rocks at your protagonist, building obstacle after obstacle after obstacle in what they call "confrontation." Throwing rocks sounds good, but does such advice help much? Not really.
Guess what—there is a simple magic that will make writing the middle part of your screenplay a blissful, joyous, and playful job. The magic is that you don't have to write sixty pages; there are only thirty pages in act 3.
Look again at what Syd Field called "first half" and "second half" of act 2:
What we can see is in fact act 3 and act 4, with their own plot points:
You may ask skeptically: "Two acts of confrontation instead of one? Isn't it even worse?" The point is, acts 3 and 4—the middle of your screenplay—are not about confrontation! As longtime moviegoers, since childhood, we have learned that real confrontation comes at the end of a movie. We all know about this "final battle," where our hero faces the villain in a mortal combat, whoever or whatever the villain and the combat are.
So what, then, are those two middle acts about?
As I pointed out earlier, act 3 deals with the new, unknown territory that our hero steps into and is therefore bound to explore. It deals with learning.
Surely there are obstacles after obstacles after obstacles in this process (remember your college years!). Surely there are some really dangerous hurdles to overcome. Yes, the nemesis may throw some warnings in your hero's face, usually indirectly (the Smaller Man cuts open Gittes's nostril), trying to force him or her to change the decision to go into the unknown territory—the nemesis's territory. And, surely, Kansas is going bye-bye. But all of this is not a face-to-face confrontation with the mastermind yet. This is the important learning experience that our hero has to undergo to be able to successfully confront the evil in the final battle.
Despite all the dangers and hurdles of learning, this is mostly an upbeat experience. Our hero seems to progress well, and likes it. (Literally, on page 51, Gittes: "I goddamn near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it.") That's what it is—the midpoint.
Very often, the midpoint is not so articulated as plot points 1 and 2. There may be no outstanding dramatic twist. Act 3 may or may not end with a bang. That's why it's sometimes difficult for a "script-writing virgin," overwhelmed by throwing rocks at the protagonist, to locate the midpoint other than by simply splitting the whole script in two—which only adds to the confusion.
The truth is, your midpoint is not a separator between two acts; it is a plot point like others. As we already know, every act has a plot point before it ends. And as we know, every plot point is a function of the main character. The midpoint belongs to act 3. It also belongs to your hero's learning experience. And it is a high point at that. So look for it where your hero likes the experience or learns some important lesson that will eventually lead him or her to victory.
How does act 3 close? It's up to you. You may go for a "bang" scene without necessarily any huge revelation, just offering another successfully passed hurdle. You may even give it a foretaste of the forthcoming battle. Or you may go for a subtler psychological scene. Just know that it ends your protagonist's row of successful learning experiences. And most important, link it to where we came from to this act—plot point 1.
In Chinatown act 3 ends with Gittes's words: "Before this I turned on the faucet, it came out hot and cold, I didn't think there was a thing to it." Beautiful.
Midpoint. Steady progress. So far so good, tomorrow seems even brighter. We're definitely going to win. We admire our hero. We rooted for him or her; we put our bets on him or her, and we made a right choice.
Not so fast!
It's time to get our hero in some really serious—you're right—
ACT 4: TROUBLE
OK, thirty more pages of "rocks, hurdles, and obstacles" until you reach the much-desired plot point 2?
Put yourself in the villain's shoes at this point. Hasn't the protagonist gone too far? You bet. Isn't it time to strike back hard? It surely is.
Act 4 will usually begin with a scene where the main character meets some different, negative judgment on his or her achievements so far.
Act 4 of Chinatown starts on page 58, with Gittes taking a trip to see Noah Cross, who will eventually prove the villain. It is Cross who gives a negative judgment to Gittes's efforts: "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't."
From this point on our hero goes downhill and does it in a progressively faster manner until he or she touches the bottom. It is the lowest point of the entire story, the biggest obstacle so far, which seems insurmountable, or a discouraging discovery showing that he or she has been moving in a wrong direction. Whatever it is, the protagonist will surely experience his or her saddest moments. All the previous efforts may seem vain and useless.
Gittes confesses: "I thought I was keeping someone from being hurt and actually I ended up making sure they were hurt."
Again, there will be an alternative: give up or do what you've never done before.
You know what choice your hero will make. And that choice will be your plot point 2 (well, in our clarified paradigm, this point's cardinal number is four, but let's stick to Syd Field's definition for the time being).
Most writers have no problem with defining their plot point 2. It's where their hero drops any hesitation and goes to face the main problem, the villain, the mastermind, the evil, the nemesis in the final—
ACT 5: CONFRONTATION
Yes, it is the last act of a screenplay that offers the real confrontation. Syd Field calls it "resolution." But in fact, resolution comes at the very end of the final battle. Otherwise, if we get to know the resolution from its beginning, how can we be taken by the fight?
Resolution is a plot point at the end of act 5. It is our hero's final statement—his or her winning hit, his or her final discovery, his or her ultimate goal. It is the answer to the plot question that first surfaced in the setup. It is the resolution of act 5, and it is the final point of the whole story.
There may or may not be a closing scene following the resolution. Your story will suggest the appropriate choice to you. It took one phrase for Robert Towne to close his screenplay: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
Many masterpieces, however, have a separate closing scene following the resolution. And often we see movies with endings that pave the way for a sequel, offering what seems an opening scene for a new plot. Your story dictates. And sometimes your producer, director, or distributor does. Be that as it may, as soon as act 5—and with it, your story—is resolved, you are free to proudly type the sweetest and most gorgeous words of all: THE END.
CONCLUSION: SO, WHAT IS THE PAINTING?
Here you are:
This is the five-act paradigm. You will immediately recognize that its structure is fully compatible with the three-act paradigm. It is in fact the three-act paradigm seen close-up. Use it. It gives you the instruments that the three-act paradigm simply can't offer.
Analyze it. Here is the breakdown for Chinatown :
- Act 1 (setup): pp. 1-9
- opening—pp. 1-4
Start Point—p. 7 ("We'll see what we can do.")
plot question—p. 9 ("Who's paying you to do that, Mr. Mulwray?")
Act 2 (intrigue): pp. 9-31
- Plot Point 1—p. 27 ("I don't want to drop it.")
bang scene—pp. 30-31 (Mulwray is found dead.)
Act 3 (learning): pp. 32-57
- Midpoint—p. 51 ("I like breathing through it.")
Act 4 (trouble): pp. 58-91
- negative judgment—p. 64 (Noah Cross)
Plot Point 2—p. 87 (Gittes goes after Mrs. Mulwray.)
Act 5 (confrontation): pp. 91-118
- Final Point—p. 118 ("He's responsible for everything!")
Here is the breakdown for The Matrix (rent a DVD and play it back, applying the five-act paradigm):
- Act 1 (setup): mins. 1-11
- opening—mins. 1-6
Start Point—min. 9 ("Yeah, sure, I'll go"—follow the White Rabbit)
plot question—min. 11 ("What is the Matrix?")
Act 2 (intrigue): mins. 11-34
- Plot Point 1—min. 28 (Neo takes the red pill.)
bang scene—mins. 29-34 (unplugging Neo)
Act 3 (learning): mins. 34-58
- Midpoint—min. 56 ("Where they have failed, you will succeed.")
Act 4 (trouble): mins. 58-93
- negative judgment—min. 60 (Cypher)
Plot Point 2—min. 91 ("I'm going in after him.")
Act 5 (confrontation): mins. 93-124
- Final Point—min. 120 (Neo controls the Matrix.)
Rent a hundred more top DVDs, and find out how every blockbuster follows the five-act paradigm to a T.
Doctor your screenplay with it. It will work.
Explore the five-act paradigm further. Share your findings with us.
And what if you want to make a more personal, art-house or avant-garde film? Still learn the rules—and then break them with knowledge.
Field, Syd. Screenplay. New York: Dell, 1982.
Field, Syd. The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver. New York: Dell, 1998.
Towne, Robert. Chinatown (the screenplay).
WRITTEN August 10, 2001
PUBLISHED in Screenwriting for a Global Market, University of California Press, 2004
“Backstory” by Dr. Andrew Horton:
Rachid Nougmanov is a filmmaker from Kazakhstan which was, until 1991, part of the Soviet Union. In 1988 his first feature film made while he was still a student at the Soviet film school in Moscow, VGIK, was The Needle (Igla), a film that made it clear to the world that when Gorbachev said that “glasnost” (openness) should be the new way for Soviets to live, he meant it. The Needle was a hip, playful and yet also romantic “take” on Soviet youth culture, starring an idol of Soviet rock ‘n roll, Victor Tsoy playing a kind of Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson hero with a vague past and a taciturn and morose nature. Pre-MTV styled rock and image sequences mixed with influences of American action films, Godard’s eclectic “post modern” French New Wave styled “non narrative”, and one can even catch on to tongue and cheek send ups of the Good Soviet styled “Socialist Realism” films that were made from the 1930s till the 1960s. It was also important that this was the first feature to mention huge drug problems going on with Soviet youth as our hero tries to save an old girlfriend from her “habit”.
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The film was an instant hit selling 13 million tickets at the Soviet box-office, and Rachid was a household name everywhere. Suddenly it seemed like the place to be for young Soviet filmmakers was not Moscow but Alma Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan.
Rachid followed this success with what can well be called “the last Soviet film” since it was shot as the Soviet Union was officially being dissolved in 1991-2, The Wild East (Diki Vostok). In this post-Apocalyptic John Ford punk samurai motorcycle “Eastern”, our “Soviet New Wave” director created a truly carnivalesque cinematic show. Shot in Kirghistan in a landscape looking not unlike John Ford’s famous Monument Valley, Nougmanov’s high camp fable opens with these words, “A long time ago at the end of the twentieth century…” The plot such as it playful is, concerns the “solar children” (played by real midgets) who are being threatened by an evil gang of nomadic bikers with pointed beards. Need we say more? Rachid manages to turn cinematic clichés into fresh fun adding hauntingly beautiful cinematography (his brother is the cinematographer) and imaginative hymn to the end of a Communist Era and the beginning of who knows what, a period the post Soviet world is still very much within.
Rachid lives in Tours, France with his wife and two children, working in Europe and remaining involved in the present and future of Kazakhstan.
He is truly a global filmmaker for he has developed several projects in Los Angeles, including work for producers Ed Pressman and David Weisman, as well as collaborating with writers William Gibson and Jack Womack. He has also penned a few screenplays in English, among them INNERVISION, THE GOLDEN IDOL and SPELL.
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